Skip navigation
Safety Leadership (not Management) Systems

Safety Leadership (not Management) Systems

Leadership, not safety management systems, keeps employees safe.

Safety management systems are not a new concept. However, there have been recent developments to make them more effective and comprehensive. Despite these supposed innovations, a safety management system won't keep people safe. Before you disagree, let me quote the great Dan Peterson, who said, "Paper doesn't save people, people save people."

What does this say, then, about safety management systems today as far as the missing piece? It can be summed up in one word – leadership.

By its very definition, a safety management system is a comprehensive method of managing safety. Clearly missing from this definition is the concept of leadership. No matter the function in nearly any organization, there are clear differences between management and leadership. In the case of safety, both are necessary to ensure that a safety management system is both effective and desirable.

The main differences between leadership and management include direction, alignment, relationships, personal qualities and outcomes (Daft, 2011, p. 16)1. While a management system clearly might be present, it might not reflect company culture and influence. Therefore, a safety management system either should be renamed to "safety leadership system" or, if nothing else, it should address the leadership aspects necessary to implement and sustain a viable safety program within your workplace.

Direction: As mentioned, the first difference between management and leadership is that of direction. When it comes to the direction or overall goal of a safety program, management includes things like planning and budgeting while focusing on the bottom line (i.e. production, cost and schedule). Leadership, on the other hand, incorporates a clear vision and a strategy to achieve that vision.

When it comes to the direction of people, very often safety is managed through a collection of policies, procedures, rules, regulations and command-and-control direction from management that dictates everything be followed all the time. Questions to consider are as follows – has the vision of the safety program, as well as WHY this is being done, been communicated on a personal level? Does it motivate people to action and provide a path to continually improve?

In this case, bringing the two sides of the coin together – management and leadership – is essential. To emphasize this point, Alan Quilley states, "The safety component of your company culture is demonstrated by what you say about how you want safety to be, then by what you collectively do about it. The time and money you spend on safety is a measurable demonstration of your desire to actually create safety."2.

Alignment: The second difference is that of alignment. In this regard, management focuses on organization and creating boundaries. These concepts, such as creating safety responsibilities for each role and establishing rules and regulations, often look great on paper. They indicate that management provides direction and expects compliance.

Reality shows, however, that there often is a gap between what we want (strict adherence to every rule) and what we actually do (adapt to our environment). A simple drive down the road can show you this disparity, such as with generally accepted levels of exceeding the speed limits.

Conversely, leadership works to create a shared culture and set of values that lead to the desired vision, and focuses on getting everyone lined up and moving in the same direction.

Relationships: The third difference is that of relationships. Management often is established based on a positional hierarchy that focuses on objects, such as production of goods and services, and taking the steps to achieve the desired ends. Focusing on people through motivation through personal influence is the role of leadership.

It often is asked in safety: "Do people follow our rules when nobody is watching?" If the suspected answer is unclear, then it begs another question: "Would people choose to follow a manager if you took away his or her formal position?" Creating guidelines through a health and safety plan is a start, but getting people to willingly follow it requires coaching and serving, not demanding and threatening.

Personal qualities: Another key difference between management and leadership is the personal qualities of those in charge in relation to their followers. These often are defined as the psychosocial aspects of a company culture and outline the development and interaction within a social environment (e.g. the workplace). Ideally, those in charge establish a positive emotional connection, keep an open mind, listen and communicate respectfully and conduct themselves with decorum.

This goes beyond the manager's expertise or set of skills within the role and enters into a relationship of exchange and support to achieve positive results. Do workers feel inclusive within the community and feel as though they contribute to something worthwhile (e.g. the vision)? Gone are the days of quoting the dreaded "Do as I say and not as I do!" 

Outcomes: The last point of differentiation between leadership and management is the outcomes. The workplace drastically has changed over the years. Workers are being asked to do more with less, and the complexity of the environment has expanded significantly in most cases.  Critical thinking is expected, especially in safety, when workers are asked to continually assess risk and make good choices.

As an outcome, management expects a degree of stability and order through an efficient program, but is that enough when it comes to the dynamic nature of human interaction? According to Richard Daft, leadership creates change that helps an organization thrive long-term by promoting openness and honesty, positive relationships and innovation (Daft, 2011, p. 19). Consider this question: Is strict, unquestioning adherence really the desired outcome?

Building a safety program is but one aspect of safety as a whole – how it's used is the key to success as well as sustainability. The safety program must have a purpose and, through leadership, that purpose must be known and understood. Expectations should equal actuality; if not, then positive change must begin. All of this must occur in an environment in which every employee feels empowered to have a voice and a hand in achieving the desired effect.

The next time your organization reviews its safety management system, encourage the beginning of a safety leadership system that ensures every person works safely and goes home at the end of the day as healthy as when he or she arrived.

1. Daft, R. L. (2011). The Leadership Experience (5th ed.). Mason, Ohio: Thomson/South-Western.
2. Quilley, A. D., Michaels, B. J., & McDonall, G. (2005). The Emperor Has No Hard Hat: Achieving Real Workplace Safety Results. Sherwood Park, Alta: MBQ Solutions.

Cary Usrey is a process improvement leader for Predictive Solutions Corp., an Industrial Scientific company. Based in Pittsburgh, Predictive Solutions saves lives by predicting workplace injuries. Usrey can be reached at [email protected].

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.